Fleckenstein et al, “The Importance of Harmony: An Ecological Metaphor for Writing Research”

Fleckenstein, Kristie S., Clay Spinuzzi, Rebecca J. Rickly, and Carole Clark Papper. “The Importance of Harmony: An Ecological Metaphor for Writing Research” CCC 60.2 (Dec 2008): 388-419. (32 pages)

Fleckenstein and her colleagues begin by noting the power of metaphor in how research and knowledge is framed: “the metaphors by which researchers orient themselves to the object of study affect the research methods they choose and the nature of the knowledge they create” (389). Positioning metaphor in this way, the authors argue for the importance of research orientations toward “metaphoric harmony” or, as described, “a resonance among the metaphors that undergrid our conceptualizations of the phenomenon of study, our methods of study, and our enactment of those methods” (389). Specifically, they see a metaphor of ecology as a terministic lens that can create such metaphoric harmony, one that I “congruent with the complexity and messiness of twenty-first century meaning-making” (389).

For the authors, harmony refers to the inextricable tie between “what researchers know and how researchers know” (391)—in other words, a harmony must be found between the ways research is conducted as well as the instruments in which we do it. In this sense, harmony refers to, in a way, a thread of validity between phenomenon, research, and knowledge—equally important is the communal harmony that exists between research and researched, our research and the research of others, etc. An ecological metaphor, then, provides an orientation toward harmony in writing studies: an ecological metaphor, in particular, offers a way of accounting for the messiness of writing itself and likewise the research of writing would need to be similarly ecological in order to be congruent—in harmony—with this understanding of writing.

Using scholarship from Syverson, Cooper, and Dobrin, the authors define ecology (roughly) as “dynamic, interacting systems” (Cooper) in which discursive, material, social and physical structures/processes are embedded and co-evolve within co-habitual environments (Syverson). Where Syverson, Cooper, and Dobrin focus their attention on describing how composition is ecological, Fleckenstein et al provide a way to understand how research is ecology through three defining features, interdependence, feedback, and diversity. Through these three terms, they note the ways ecological writing is congruent with ecological research.

Per interdependence, an ecological metaphor recognizes how activity is an interlocked web of “social, material, and semiotic practices” (394). In this light, they reject a monolithic paradigm model and embrace the idea of “symbiotic clusters” or “knots of nonhierarchical, locally enacted, semiotic-material practices that inform each other in multiple ways: (394). A paradigm, then, emerges out of a larger linkage of practices and processes. But further, this co- or interdependence—and the networked nature of interdependence—emphasizes the ways in which the researcher is always immersed within “multileveled, multifaceted environment” of which the researcher is apart. Per feedback, the network, the writer, and writing are “created through the feedback—the communication—among various loops/levels of a system” (396). In this way, symbiotic clusters are comprised of feedback loops or the flow of information—discursive, material, and communicative practices. Here, the researcher must define a circumference to observe within the feedback loop: they offer “organism-in-its-environment” as a guiding principle to circumscribe a mutable, porous, malleable circle that demarcates the scope constituting the phenomenon of study (397). To porous, malleable, permeable nature of the circumference is then connected to their third congruence between ecological research and writing: diversity. As they write, an ecological metaphor emphasizes the “multiple sites of immersion, multiple perspectives, and multiple-methodologies within a particular discipline and research project” thus “diversity impels researchers to seek out different contexts of writing, to read beyond their normal scope of disciplinary literature, and redraw the circumference of immersion” (401). While some researchers warn against the potential pollution of multiple methodologies or perspectives, the authors believe that all research is always already polluted and thus a researcher must have a critical self-awareness of such diversity.

It is within these three points—or congruencies—that provide researchers an orientation toward ecological methodologies, but the second half of their research is dedicated to how a researcher enacts such research. They provide four questions and corresponding rhetorical enactments:

  1. Why should I conduct research? Teacher-scholars can make a difference “in the material conditions of one’s reality” (406). Succinctly, “Neither entirely material nor entirely semiotic, ecologically oriented research is always poised on the edge of difference. Here the researcher and his or her project are situated on the cusp between materiality and semiosis, tangible reality (organisms and environment) and communication, actuality and possibility.
  2. What questions should I ask? When is a good time to ask them? Focusing on Kairos, the authors note that questions arise from “the conviction that this is the right time to speak in this place” (407).
  3. How do I design a research project? They offer the concept of to prepon or decorum: “the desire among community members for new insights inspires the development of new methodologies that then evoke the development of new discourse forms that finally return to the community challenging and changing preconceived notions of effective presentation of research results. Thus, decorum both ‘affirms and simultaneously seeks to alter’ audience expectations” (411).
  4. What criteria do I use to judge the quality of my research? Simply, rhetorical rigor rooted in multiple perspectives in research.
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